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A conservative Oregon county attempts criminal prosecution of a federal employee

Dwayne Ehmer carries a U.S. flag as he rides his horse on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 7, 2016, near Burns, Ore. An armed anti-government militia occupied the headquarters there to protest the jailing of two ranchers accused of arson.
Justin Sullivan
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Dwayne Ehmer carries a U.S. flag as he rides his horse on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 7, 2016, near Burns, Ore. An armed anti-government militia occupied the headquarters there to protest the jailing of two ranchers accused of arson.

Attorneys for a federal wildland firefighter whose controversial arrest in eastern Oregon by a rural sheriff drew national headlines have successfully delayed his trial while they try to move the case to federal court.

Ricky Snodgrass with the U.S. Forest Service had been scheduled to appear in a Grant County, Ore., court Monday on a reckless burn charge stemming from a controlled burn he supervised that spread onto private land in the fall of 2022.

But his lawyer, with the help of the Department of Justice, was granted a motion to delay until next month. In the meantime, they're trying to move the case to federal court, where the charges could be dropped.

Snodgrass's arrest and later criminal indictment occurred after a controlled burn he led on federal land near a highway in the eastern Oregon mountains jumped to private land and burned 20 acres.

Snodgrass is not doing interviews. But Max Alonzo, a former USFS employee with the union representing federal workers, says nearby landowners that day were apparently upset about the fire happening and started causing trouble, taking to the road in their pickups.

"They were swerving in and out of the road. They were acting like they were going to hit people that were trying to perform this prescribed fire," Alonzo says.

Snodgrass called the police for help, Alonzo says. By the time the sheriff arrived the fire had spread to private land. He ended up handcuffing Snodgrass and arresting him for reckless burning.

Controlled burns and private property

It's not that unusual for a prescribed fire to accidentally spread to private land, especially if unpredicted winds kick up. Landowners are typically compensated, but an arrest appears unprecedented.

"There are federal protections for federal employees doing their jobs," Alonzo says. "Honestly, the sheriff should be charged with interfering with federal work."

Sheriff Todd McKinley declined an interview request, citing the case being in pretrial. But Grant County leaders say the arrest is being overblown.

"One man doing his job kind of caused the other one to have to do his," says Scott Myers, the Grant County judge and chief executive officer.

Myers says the weather conditions that day probably weren't favorable for a burn, and it damaged private property.

"It's an accident, and you can't predict accidents," he says. "But I think you can prevent them to some extent."

The setting of the arrest can't be ignored. Like much of the natural resource-dependent rural West, eastern Oregon has a long history of mistrust of the federal government. Grant County once petitioned Congress to take control of all the federal lands inside the county. In 2002, voters also overwhelmingly supported an apparent symbolic citizen initiative to keep the United Nations out of eastern Oregon.

National Association of Forest Service Retirees President Steve Ellis spent much of his career as a supervisor with the agency in the region. He says the anger can be traced back to the early 1990s, when public lands logging was all but shut down there.

"It resulted in a lot of economic frustration," Ellis says. " And it's run fairly high ever since."

In 2016, during the armed occupation of the headquarters of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, militia members led by Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum were traveling to Grant County to meet with supporters. They ran into a police roadblock, and Finicum was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Oddly, that 2016 occupation originally stemmed from a legal battle over another intentional burn. That one was set by a rancher on federal land who ended up going to federal prison. But Grant County chief executive Scott Myers says generally relations between the county and federal land managers have gotten better.

"We get labeled a lot to be a whole bunch of gun totin', pickup driving crazy maniacs out here, and I don't really think we are," he says.

Still, federal workers say the Oregon arrest is casting a chill over a vital wildfire prevention program that's already under scrutiny, especially after a controlled burn in New Mexico got out of hand and turned into that state's largest ever wildfire in April of 2022.

"Wildland firefighters make an average of a third of what a normal firefighter makes," says Alonzo. "Now you're expecting them to go out and possibly get arrested for doing their jobs. I mean, who wants to do that?"

A decision on the Snodgrass arrest case is likely months out.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.